The Lesson – by Cadwell Turnbull

As probably any lover of science fiction, I can’t help but being drawn by stories about first contact, which are a staple of the genre and an inexhaustible source of fascinating questions and speculations. The Lesson promised an unusual and more literary take on the matter: whatever that was supposed to mean, I had to find out.

Title: The Lesson

Author: Cadwell Turnbull

Publication Date: 19 June 2019

Genre: Science Fiction

Pages: 286

Standalone or Series: Standalone

Representation: Black Carribean cast – Sapphic relationship

Content Warning: Violence – Death – Slavery – Cancer/Terminal illness – Death of animal – Death of parent – Abusive relationship

Synopsis

THE LESSON explores the nature of belief, the impact of colonialism, and asks how far are we willing to go for progress? Breaking ground as one of the first science fiction novels set in the Virgin Islands, THE LESSON is not only a thought-provoking literary work, delving deeply into allegorical themes of colonialism, but also vividly draws the community of Charlotte Amalie, wherefrom the author hails.

An alien ship rests over Water Island. For five years the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands have lived with the Ynaa, a race of super-advanced aliens on a research mission they will not fully disclose. They are benevolent in many ways but meet any act of aggression with disproportional wrath. This has led to a strained relationship between the Ynaa and the local Virgin Islanders and a peace that cannot last. A year after the death of a young boy at the hands of an Ynaa, three families find themselves at the center of the inevitable conflict, witness and victim to events that will touch everyone and teach a terrible lesson.

Analysis

Form & Style: The novel, written in third person, mostly follows the point of views of a multitude of characters, immersing the reader in their daily experiences, intimate moments of introspection, life-changing memories. Only in a single chapter the point of view soars higher in space and time, to offer an all-encompassing perspective on local history – more specifically: on the history of several, subsequent invasions of what we know as the Virgin Islands. The writing is stylishly simple, keeping close to common language, and making a more obvious use of vernacular pattern in its dialogues.

Setting: The story takes place in the Virgin Islands, in a present-day setting that comes across as nothing but mundane – until, of course, shaken up by the appearance of an extraterrestrial spaceship.

As for the aliens themselves, they are at first notable for what we do not see: their arrival is glossed over thanks to a five-years time skip, and as the characters are largely preoccupied with their own lives, we only passingly learn that the Ynaa look almost perfectly human, that they present themselves as helpful, but react mercilessly to the slightest aggression, and that they hint to a “lesson” they are supposed to teach, which nature is however still obscure, such as unknown are the features of their technology, society, and whatnot.

As the story moves on, however, we see the impact of their arrival from a few different perspectives, and even get a glimpse of what their original civilisation is supposed to be. We also learn that their humanoid appearance is nothing but a disguise – which helped my suspension of disbelief, at least to some extent, even though their “real” depiction is still suspiciously anthropomorphic, and their supposedly “alien” mindset is way less creative than it could have been.

Characters: The Lesson aims at being a mostly character-driven novel, where the larger plot is often overshadowed by personal experiences. As such, great attention is devoted to the inner thoughts and daily lives of the disparate individuals it follows. The results, however, are mixed, possibly due to the number of characters that are given voice in this relatively short novel. Some characters are beautifully fleshed out, with chapters that are at once very personable, and relevant for the story they told: I am mainly thinking about Derrick, an enthusiastic but naive young guy who ends up working for the aliens and is regarded as a traitor of his people because of that; and Mera, an Ynaa ambassador who, due to her long time on Earth, some of which spent posturing as a slave, has a unique view of both cultures.

Others, on the other hand, are somehow shallow, one-note, or even inconclusive; and I am fine with some minor characters being there just to expose a specific view of society, embodied by their own more or less radical choices; I am however less happy when a fairly major character such as Patrice is given a mostly inconsistent characterisation – coming across as now bland and uncurious, now restless and dissatisfied with her surrounding, just to casually end up pregnant just to add some… stakes, I guess? Again, none of this would be a capital sin if the book were more focused on telling an engaging plot, or on illustrating a detailed worldbuilding; however, since characters are supposed to take all the spotlight, I would have expected some more satisfying work on that department.

Plot: For most of the book, very little happens on page: the most dramatic events, in fact, are relegated out of scene in a way that would have made Aristotle proud. The arrival of the Ynaa, of all things, is only described indirectly, and even its impact on human society is mostly portrayed through its effects on our main characters’ lives. Only at the end of the book, in a sudden change of pace, we are thrust into the midst of the action – and it’s some gruesome, high-octane action sequence we’re talking about – just to finally revert once again to the same slice-of-life tone at the end of the story.

Themes & Overall Thoughts: The Lesson uses the theme of alien invasion as a quite open metaphor for colonialism; which comes with some very clever insights – such as the mixture of fascination and dread for a more powerful culture; the patronising hypocrisy behind the pretense of “teaching a lesson”; and a number of treacherous and manipulative power dynamics more in general – but has nevertheless its own puzzling sides. First of all, the way they are depicted, the Ynaa aren’t really the most direct metaphor for a colonising force: they are on Earth to pursue their own research and then leave for good, and have no interest in massively exploiting our resources or in permanently taking control of our society. Moreover, while they’re ruthlessly and disproportionately violent when provoked, the Ynaa are otherwise peaceful, and even beneficial to humankind.

I surely don’t think the author meant to say that indigenous population would have been much better off, had they shown no resistance – most likely, the implied message is that an overly powerful, self-serving force will soon show its ruthless side even when it presents itself as friendly… except, is that really the historical pattern of colonialism? Now that I think about it, it might work a bit better as a analogue for nowadays global economy, even though the references are less direct. Whatever the case, not all metaphors are meant to be taken literally, and the themes The Lesson explores do work well on a poetic level, as well as to provide food for thought.

The novel also tries to blend stylistic features of literary and speculative fiction, with some very mixed results. On the matter, I must say that, while I do enjoy different genres and understand their specifics, I am not a fan of a rigid distinction between what’s ‘literary’ and what is not, especially because it implies as diminished artistic value of some narratives… and I’ll leave it at that, since I plan to write a more thorough article on the matter. In general, I am enthusiastically in favour of SFF authors that devote a loving attention to their prose, experiment with less conventional forms of storytelling, and endow their characters with some psychological depth, instead of using them as mere mouthpieces for this or that idea; I am less enthused, however, when they forego to explore their speculative themes in their fullest, as if they were ashamed of their “pulpy” subject matter.

Now, in this specific case, I was intrigued by the attempt to focus on characters first and foremost, and to show that people had, in fact, lives and interest of their own, however I also wished some more attention had been devoted to the worldbuilding, possibly merging the two aspects instead of choosing one over the other. And indeed, some chapters did it right – see once again Mera and Derricks experiences, that are both deeply personal and connected to larger events; other times, however, I was left wondering why I was supposed to care about someone’s rather dull midlife crisis, of all things going on? By all means, you can divert your narrative gaze from the alien invasion to show how life goes on for common people – as long as their subplots are original and satisfying on their own. It’s not like depicting banal life events has some automatic literary merit, just because it’s not a SFF trope. It doesn’t help that some of the specifically SFF themes, that had in themselves so much potential, were hastily developed to say the least: for all that the novel hints to the elusive nature of the “lesson” the Ynaa want to teach, and to the hidden features of their culture, the reveal of both is incredibly disappointing, to the extent I thought some additional twist was due to follow.

In conclusion, The Lesson had some interesting themes and was pleasantly written, however it did not live up to all its promises. Still worth reading as a variation on an inherently fascinating theme.

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